Friday, November 24, 2017
Opinion

Column: Florida's approach to violent crime is working

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The Tampa Bay Times editorial board recently criticized Florida for "maxing out" felon prison terms ("Florida needs to cut costs, cut crime," June 16). It cited a Pew Report and concluded that "warehousing only creates a permanent criminal class." Early release and community supervision were recommended.

California has supervision. Last month two sex offenders were released early to be "supervised." They were re-apprehended after raping and killing four (possibly five) women. California was rated "second best" by Pew. Florida ranks last.

New York does very well, almost making the top 10. Their reforms included releasing 230 murders and sexual predators in 2012. "The record will show that murders don't repeat," said a spokeswoman for the state. But sometimes they do. Between 1985 and 2005, 1,471 people were killed by New York's released murderers; 1,013 were victims of rapes and other sex crimes. A catch-and-release approach to murders and deviant predators has had its consequences.

Pew says Washington is doing better than the national average. There, an inmate killed an elderly woman, then soaked her in gasoline before burying her in her garden. He had been "supervised" during field trips to the local fair. In 2009, he didn't come back. They eventually found him … hitchhiking away.

Oregon takes the top spot. But I doubt Oregon's businesses celebrate rising property crime rates. And women are more likely to be raped in Oregon than most other states.

Florida's last-place ranking is paired with a 42-year low in violent crime. It's down nearly one third in just six years. The overall crime rate fell 25 percent during that period.

But by Pew's standards, we are not improving. Gov. Rick Scott just signed legislation mandating a 50-year mandatory minimum sentence for rapists who victimize young children, senior citizens or the disabled. We eliminated "time off for good behavior" that previously permitted early release for violent sexual predators.

Florida provides inmates job training, religious services, skills development and counseling for domestic, emotional and substance abuse. We will spend more than $80 million on inmate re-entry assistance this year. We simply prefer to deliver services to our most dangerous inmates inside prison walls first. That way, if our best rehabilitation efforts fail, dangerous people won't be in your neighborhood sooner than a judge or jury has ordered.

This year, Florida will allow more sentencing discretion for prescription drug offenders. We will let parents of dying children access cannabis without punishment. Specialized drug and veterans' courts will develop into even more meaningful diversion tools. We know the difference between compassion, nonviolent mistakes and those serious offenders who pose real threats.

Pew is right about one thing. We do warehouse our permanent criminal class. Dating back to Cain and Abel, the crime rate has never been zero. Some people are just evil. If released (or even supervised) they'll remain evil. I hope every dangerous criminal in America notices where Florida ranks on Pew's report. If we catch you committing a heinous crime here, it's off to the warehouse.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, is chairman of the Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. He was a primary author of the 2014 Violent Sexual Predator Reform Package and the Timely Justice Act. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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